Last month marked five years since Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational marijuana, but state lawmakers find themselves weeding through proposed restrictions on a product that researchers say can harm the health of youths.
On a 2016 ballot question, Massachusetts residents approved legalization, joining California, Maine and Nevada voters in doing so that year. Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon previously had legalized recreational marijuana.
Under the Massachusetts law, adults older than 21 are permitted to use, grow and sell marijuana in limited quantities without legal consequences. The state began allowing licensed recreational sales in 2018, bringing 14 recreational dispensaries, out of a total of 165 in the state as of Sept. 1, to Berkshire County.
But, some state lawmakers are proposing restrictions. State Rep. James O’Day, D-Worcester, has proposed raising the minimum age for recreational use to 25, citing a desire to keep young people safe. Separately, state Rep. Bradford Hill, R-Ipswich, filed a bill to limit serving sizes, flavors and levels of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Gov. Charlie Baker had expressed concerns when he signed the legalization bill into law in 2017.
“I don’t support this,” Baker said. “I worry terribly about what the consequences over time will be ... [but] the people voted this, and I think it’s really important that we put the program in place and deliver a workable, safe, productive recreational marijuana market for them in Massachusetts.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that marijuana “may harm the developing teen brain,” which, it says, “often will not be fully developed until the mid-20s.” It lists negative effects on attention, memory and learning as possibilities.
“Frankly, it’s a lot easier to confuse a 19-year-old with a 21-year-old than it is to confuse a 19-year-old with a 25-year-old,” O’Day said.
“I’m in personal long-term recovery,” he added. “If you never pick up a substance, you’re far less likely to develop a dependency on a life-altering substance.”
The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics reports that teens in Massachusetts are 33.7 percent more likely to have used drugs within the past month than the average American teen, a number that concerns supporters of more marijuana restrictions.
Hill’s bill would target the rising THC levels in marijuana. In the early 1990s, the average amount was less than 4 percent, but the average amount in 2018 was above 15 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Two lawmakers have co-sponsored the bill, while no lawmaker yet has signed on to O’Day’s bill.
Other proposals heard Dec. 1 included setting a minimum age of 21 for marijuana-related events, requiring more thorough labeling of marijuana products and creating a marijuana “open-container” law.
Most testimony, however, concerned the bills from Hill and O’Day.
Theresa Hoggins, a mother who attended the Dec. 1 hearing on the legislation, said her teenage son had been “seriously harmed” by cannabis use, referring to psychosis and addiction.
“Like many teens across Massachusetts, my teen was offered cannabis for the first time at a high school party,” Hoggins said. “I love my child. It’s heartbreaking to watch my child suffer and feel helpless.”
While a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association links legal marijuana with teens’ increased use of the drug, a separate study, in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found no correlation between legalization and teen consumption.
The studies might draw different conclusions on the effects of legalization on youths, but some medical professionals believe that more regulation would benefit teens in the long run.
Dr. Safdar Medina, a pediatric medicine specialist in Uxbridge, said cannabis can affect youths’ mental and physical health, citing worsening symptoms of depression, anxiety and increased chances of respiratory issues.
“There is an urgency to protect our children now,” Medina said.
This story has been modified to remove comments from the director of the Massachusetts Grower Advocacy Council, which were taken out of context.